Saturday, May 20, 2006

America's War of Independents

I have been meaning to comment on Tyler Cowen's article on Slate: "What Are Independent Bookstores Really Good For? (Not much.)." He argues that:
...indie stores are not all intellectual powerhouses like Powell's in Portland, considered by many to be the best bookstore in the United States. For better or worse, they are commercial entities just like the superstores. In this case, being David to the superstores' Goliath doesn't always mean that they ought to win out.
My hesitation to remark on this essay is due in part to the bizarrely inflammatory nature of the topic; criticism of independent bookstores raises passions not unlike arguments over religion. (See, for example, the ensuing fray that resulted when Slate posted the article.)

The reaction to Cowen's hit piece was exacerbated by a trio of problems: it wasn't very well written; it seemed to assert, rather snobbishly, that anyone defending independent bookstores was nursing a snobbish affectation (and nothing more); and it missed some very real problems with the occasionally misplaced worship of independent bookstores.

Before I note my personal feelings on this topic, let me say that there are six bookstores I regular visit (at least once a month) in Manhattan: three are independents (Three Lives, St. Mark's Books, Shakespeare & Co.), two are chains (B&N Union Square and the Borders across the street from where I live), and one is a used book store (Housing Works).

Yet I buy most of my books from Borders or Amazon. Why?

And I'm lucky to have so many choices. A glance at the American Bookseller's Association's roster will show you that many so-called "independent" bookstores are university textbook stores, Hallmark franchises, office supplies stores with book sections, smoke shops, and newsstands--often with the type of book selection you'd find in an airport. As the wonderfully named blogger Belle Lettre admits, although she is upset by the closing of Cody's, "it's kind of hard to mourn for the tiny bookshops in the tourist cities bordering (or 15 miles away from) my own city."

Basically, bookstores are not content providers; they are, at heart, distributors. With rare exception (e.g., St. Mark's, Powell's, Tattered Cover), the majority of "independent" stores primarily stock mass-market and trade titles from the major corporate publishers. I've spent most of my career working for and with small, independent, and university presses--and the truth of the matter is that, without Borders, B&N, and Amazon, a good number of those presses would be out of business. While the last two decades have been a bust for independent bookstores, they have been a bonanza for many independent publishers.

A superstore carries up to 100,000 titles--that quantity can't all come from the major houses. Online, our books get as much exposure on Amazon (one page per book on the Web site) as, say, the latest novel from Stephen King. (Amazon's #1 best-seller for most of a week earlier this month was from Working Assets Publishing; it was a book whose sales will almost surely be relatively small in stores.) Similarly, Amazon's "Recommended for You" listings make no distinction between small presses and Random House. Customers can find a book much more easily, and it will nearly always be in stock for immediate shipment. (In a similar vein, Jason Comerford questions the need for independent stores in the age of the Internet.)

In effect, to despise the rise of the superstores and the online bookseller and mourn the loss of independent stores is to favor the means of distribution over the substance of books themselves. The anecdotes about independent stores that support independent publishing are the exceptions (and don't get me wrong: they are valuable exceptions) rather than the rule of the marketplace.

I'm not sure I understand the philosophical reasoning employed by those who adamantly refuse to spend their hard-earned money at Barnes & Noble yet have no problem whatsoever shelling out the bucks for a novel published by Time Warner.

There's another benefit to superstores and Amazon (and here I side with Cowen, although not as vehemently): decent independent bookstores have congregated in large urban centers. The rabid defense of independent bookstores often comes across, inadvertently, as big-city pretentiousness. As "JohnK" responded to the Slate article:
Twenty years ago if you didn't live in Manhattan or a few other places, your choice of books was limited by the local B.Dalton in the mall. They were terrible. Living out in flyover country, I cannot describe what a godsend Barnes and Noble, Borders and Amazon have been. You can now get anything and more importantly browse a huge collection of books and discover books you wouldn't have known existed before the advent of the big book store.
The one defining aspect about superstores and online vendors is how democratic they are.

This is not to say I wouldn't be upset if, heaven forbid, "Three Lives" went out of business; the ambiance of the store and the friendliness of the owners have made it feel like a second home. It's a favorite hangout, even if I don't buy as many books there as from other sources. But I'd be hard-pressed to point out to you the few small-press titles stocked by this lovely store.

The choice, sadly, is unavoidable: do we want independent distributors or independent publishers?